Kongo Religion

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KONGO RELIGION . The Kikongo-speaking peoples of the Niger-Congo linguistic group represent a rich and diverse cultural heritage associated with the ancient kingdom of Kongo. By the late twentieth century, they were three to four million strong and lived in rural and urban areas of the western part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Congo, Angola (and Cabinda), from 4° to 7° south latitude to 11° to 14° east longitude, as well as in several New World settings. Since the fourteenth century they have gained their livelihood primarily from the cultivation of various food crops (oil palm, yams, plantains, manioc, and so forth), and from hunting, fishing, and livestock tending. Smithing (of weapons, tools, jewelry, and ritual articles), weaving, tanning, sculpting, and carpentry, as well as trading in the famous Kongo markets, have been important commercial skills.

Increasingly from the late fifteenth century on, Kongo peoples were profoundly affected by contacts with European merchants, missionaries, and travelers, especially in connection with the great coastal trade, which included (from the eighteenth to late nineteenth centuries) massive slave traffic. Hardly had the slave trade ended in the 1860s when the Kongo region became the launching ground for colonial exploration and the establishment of the Congo Free State and the Belgian Congo. One indicator of the social dislocation and upheaval suffered by Kongo peoples is their gradual decline in population. From the fifteenth century to the early twentieth century it was reduced by half, despite a high birthrate. Only in 1930 did this population trend change to one of growth.

Life in Kongo society is characterized by a sense of unity of all aspects, articulated through numerous complementary oppositions. An individual is born, and remains, a juridical member of his mother's lineage and clan, yet the tie to the father and the father's kin is also strong and provides a source of spiritual identity. An individual's property relations lie inherently with the matrilineal estate, yet throughout life a child may enjoy rights to use the father's property. The collective children of a matrilineage's men constitute a continuing source of political consolidation of such a lineage. Alliances between lineages, often in reciprocal father-to-child marriages, reinforce existing bonds and create the basis of the social fabric.

Kongo religious beliefs and practices derive from these pervasive social realities. There are a number of basic Kongo religious concepts that have persisted amid the profound viscissitudes of Kongo history. Among them is the belief in a supreme being, known as Nzambi Kalunga or Nzambi Mpungu Tulendo, who is thought to be omnipotent. Although Nzambi Kalunga is the creator and the ultimate source of power, lesser spirits and ancestors mediate between humanity and the supreme being. Evil, disorder, and injustice are believed to be the result of such base human motives as greed, envy, or maliciousness. As constant sources of life and well-being, both the land and the matrilineal ancestors buried in it form the basis of the preoccupation in Kongo thought with fertility and the continuity of the community. Patrifilial relations and other alliances formed in the public sphere bring forth in Kongo religion a concern with the nature of power, its sources, applications, and the consequences of beneficent and malevolent uses of it.

Kongo Religious History

The range of diverse cults, movements, and beliefs in the religion of the Kikongo-speaking peoples may best be presented in terms of a historical sketch. By 1500, the period when historical records were first kept, Kongo agrarian communities had been drawn into numerous kingdoms and large chiefdoms established centuries earlier; on the coast there were the Loango, Kakongo, and Ngoyo kingdoms; inland on the north bank of the Congo River, there was Vungu and numerous other chiefdoms; on the south bank, Nsundi and Kongo. In all these polities, shrines and insignia of authority represented the complementarity of power: the autochthonous spirits of the land and the awesome, detached, acumen of conquering, alliance building, and conflict judging.

The Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão contacted the king at Mbanza Kongo, the capital, in the late fifteenth century, and later the Portuguese king and merchants entered into diplomatic, mercantile, and missionary relations with Kongo, unleashing significant forces of change. In a succession struggle between the traditional prince Mpanzu and Christian prince Afonso in 1510, the victory of the latter brought about the official endorsement of Catholicism, schools, and the Europeanization of Kongo culture. A more centralized model of government prevailed, with Portuguese backing. At the same time, but against the king's wishes, the slave trade began to have serious repercussions in the kingdom. After Afonso's death in the mid-fifteenth century the kingdom began to disintegrate and, although usually supported by Portuguese militia and Catholic missionaries, it became increasingly subject to extended succession feuds between contending houses and lineages. During the centuries of the coastal trade, especially the slave era (eighteenth to late nineteenth century), all of the region's historical kingdoms gradually lost their control over tax levying, trade, and orderly administration. A variety of cults and renewal movements made their appearances.

Crisis cults and movements in Kongo history must be seen against the background of more long-term, focused, therapeutic rituals and life-cycle rituals, with which they share the underlying symbolic logic that will be described later. To a degree the crisis cults of Kongo history arise from the ground of routine rituals. Thus, initiation rites of Kimpasi (widespread south of the river) and Kinkhimba (north of the river), mentioned as early as the seventeenth century, are known to have had a periodicity of occurrence that intensified with droughts, political chaos, and rising perception of witchcraft activity. Both types of initiation were promoted by chiefs and sought to instruct youth and to legitimate political regimes.

As chiefdoms and kingdoms suffered loss of legitimacy in the trade or because of the decline of central states, new insignia and charms of power spread to enhance authority. As infertility and population decline became acute, especially in areas subjected to venereal disease and other epidemics, fertility and birthing medicine cults emerged, such as Pfemba, organized by midwives in the western north bank region. As the coastal trade increased in intensity and caravans moved from the coast to inland markets and trading points, challenging local polities and demanding provisions, medicine cult networks arose to buttress regional market and alliance structures and to protect those who were involved in the trade from the envy of their subordinates; Lemba, the great medicine of markets and government, is an important instance of this. Nkita, an ancient medicine of lineage structure, emerged wherever segmentary lineage fragments were beset by misfortune and sought to restore authority and ties to ancestors.

Kongo cultic history may be seen as a veritable tradition of renewal, either at the local lineage level, the national level, or in terms of a specific focus. Often the appeal is for restoration of public morality and order; individualized charms are commanded to be destroyed, the ancestors' tombs are restored, cemeteries purified, and group authority is renewed. Although often the originators of new cultic forms are unknown, some exceptional founding individuals are remembered and may be identified.

An especially severe and prolonged succession crisis in the Kongo kingdom in the eighteenth century brought to the fore a Kongo Joan of Arc, the prophetess Kimpa Vita, or Dona Béatrice, to reconcile the contending factions and restore authority to the capital. Her syncretic doctrine of national salvation combined royalist ideals of restoration of the capital with the call for fertility and the appeal to Christian love, subsumed under the banner of Saint Anthony, for whom the prophetess's followers were named Antonines. Kimpa Vita's work was cut short when she was charged with heresy by the Capuchin missionary Bernardo da Gallo, who supported one of the other political factions; after her execution the Antonine movement continued for several decades. Renewal movements became increasingly common, and better documented, during the Free State era (18751908) as colonial labor recruitment, epidemic diseases, population decline, and renewed missionary efforts to defame traditional beliefs subjected the Kongo peoples to a loss of values and the disintegration of leaders' authority. By 1920 Kongo chiefs were generally ineffective; their judicial techniques were bypassed by the colonial authorities or banned. Especially important in the context of Kongo religious leaders is the twentieth-century Kongo prophet Simon Kimbangu, whose widely influential teachings eventually gave rise to the largest independent church in Africa.

Mission Christianity, implanted during the Free State and subsequent colonial era by British, Swedish, and American Protestant groups and by Belgian, French, and Portuguese Catholics has given rise to many congregations and conferences, as well as to schools, hospitals, seminaries, and other specialized institutions. Furthermore, it has brought about the far-reaching Christianization of the Kongo populace. However, paradoxically, most Kongo Christians still subscribe to the fundamental tenets of the Kongo religion and worldview.

Kongo Beliefs and Practices Today

In the twentieth century large numbers of Kongo people migrated to the urban centers of Brazzaville, Kinshasa, Matadi, Pointe Noire, Luanda, and lesser towns, yet reverence for lineage ancestors and offerings made to them continue to be integrally tied to the maintenance of lineage land estates and to the guardianship of the matrilineal kin unit. Many of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century initiatory and curing rites have been abandoned, yet many dimensions of life continue to be sacralized. For example, religious beliefs continue to revolve around providing assurance for women's reproductive capacity and male fertility; guaranteeing the legitimacy of authority roles at lineage and clan levels; presiding over rites of passagenaming, puberty, marriage, bride price payment, death; restoring ancestral ties where lineages have been segmented or where, in urban settings, lineage fragments seek to return to their roots.

Dealing with misfortune remains an important issue in Kongo religion, although the list of common occurrences has grown from hunting and gardening activities and related accidents (e.g., being gored by a wild boar, falling from a palm tree) to include accidents and misfortunes of industrial society (e.g., automobile crashes and factory accidents). The old desires for influence, love, justice, and success have remained current, along with the need to explain failures in these areas. Misfortunes, and the desire for good fortune, are dealt with in the perspectives of historical Kongo divining, mediumship, protective magic, and healing. The axioms of this worldview, apparently quite persistent over centuries, explain the fate of humans in terms of the priority of the invisible spirit world over the visible material world or the tendency of the former to regularly break in upon the latter. Normal events in the order of things and relationships created by Nzambi require no particular piety or devotion to continue. By contrast, abnormal or unusual events are considered to be caused by humans who, willfully or inadvertently, affect others' destinies (mostly for the worse) by spiritual or direct means. The Kongo word often translated as witchcraft or sorcery is kindoki, from loka (to use charged words toward others). The power of words in interpersonal discourse is greatly respected. Human ties, frequently polluted and muddled with ill will, malicious intentions, and envy, or the threat of becoming so, must regularly be renewed with gift exchanges, purification rites, and harmonious discourse.

When ordinary people cannot cope with their misfortunes and conflicts, they turn to the nganga (specialized priests and doctors). The nganga are diviners, religious specialists skilled in manipulating spirits, humans, and symbols; agents of power who inaugurate offices of authority; and healers who deal with sicknesses of mind and body. They use esoteric codes relating the visible realm of plants and substances and apply them to the invisible realm of emotions, society, and the beyond. These mediatory roles of the nganga (as well as those of chiefs, prophets, and other powerful people) require legitimation from the white otherworld (mpemba ), the realm of ancestors and spirits. As a natural cosmology mpemba is most often associated with water, the realm of nature, and with ancestor spirits. Land, the abode of mundane human powers, is associated with black, the realm of defective, partial, and evil forces. The sky is a third realm, not associated with any color; it is the abode of other spiritual forces. Redness, often used to describe the ambiguous or transitional areas of life, may be tied to power, or to the sun and other astral bodies, and it expresses the cycles and rhythms of natural and human life. This cosmology of natural realms and color qualities may be associated with the more explicit human ideology of matrilineal and patrilateral kinship, in a ritual grammar that amplifies the complementary dependencies of mother and child, father and child, siblings and spouses. At the most abstract level, the white may be contrasted to the world and used as a metaphor of renewal, postulating the ever-ready tendency of mpemba to pervade the human world, to replace, renew, and purify it.

Kongo religion is more complex and profound than any single doctrine or congregation represented within it. It is a set of perspectives about life, of symbolic traditions and roles that have formed over centuries of human experience at the mouth of the Congo River. This experience includes the adversities of the slave trade, massive depopulation, epidemics, colonialism, and droughts, as well as the challenges of Christianization and independence. Kongo religion is at the heart of one of the great historic, yet living, human civilizations.

See Also

Kimbangu, Simon.


The English reader may begin a study of Kongo religion with John M. Janzen and Wyatt MacGaffey's An Anthology of Kongo Religion: Primary Texts from Lower Zaire, "Publications in Anthropology, University of Kansas," no. 5 (Lawrence, Kans., 1974), an introduction to several facets of the subject as seen in fifty-two translated texts. Wyatt MacGaffey's Religion and Society in Central Africa: The BaKongo of Lower Zaire (Chicago, 1986), is a major synthesis of all aspects of historical and current Kongo religion. Kongo religion as reflected in mortuary art is depicted in Robert Farris Thompson's The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds (Washington, D.C., 1981). The double entendre of Thompson's title, refering to the dichotomies of visible-invisible and Africa-New World in Kongo belief and ceremonial space, is derived from one of the clearest renderings of Kongo cosmology, A. Fu-kiau kia Bunseki-Lumanisa's N'kongo ye Nza / Cosmogonie Kongo (Kinshasa, Congo, 1969).

Classics in Kongo culture, including religion, are Jan van Wing's Études baKongo (Brussels, 1959), especially part 2 on religion and magic, and Karl Edward Laman's The Kongo, 4 vols., "Studia Ethnographica Upsaliensia," nos. 4, 8, 12, and 16 (Uppsala, 19531968). Specialized studies include, on Kongo messianism, Effraim Andersson's Messianic Popular Movements in the Lower Congo (Uppsala, 1958); on witchcraft and consecrated medicines, Tulu kia Mpansu Buakasa's L'impensé du discours: "Kinodoki" et "nkisi" en pays kongo du Zaïre (Kinshasa, Congo, 1973); on Christian missions in Kongo, Effraim Andersson's Churches at the Grass Roots: A Study in Congo-Brazzaville (London, 1968); and on historic healing cults, John M. Janzen's Lemba, 16501930: A Drum of Affliction in Africa and the New World (New York, 1981).

New Sources

Bockie, Simon. Death and the Invisible Powers: The World of Kongo Belief. Bloomington, Ind., 1993.

Friedman, Kajsa Ekholm. Catastrophe and Creation: The Transformation of an African Culture. Philadelphia, 1991.

John M. Janzen (1987)

Revised Bibliography